The Hague’s canal ring revived

‘Small is beautiful’ could be a motto for canals, especially in cities. And this simple precept is now being followed in the Netherlands with spectacular results. This was the main lesson learned during the EU Waterways Forward partnership meeting in The Hague on May 30th-June 1st.

During the first day of proceedings, May 31st, delegates discovered the ambitious canal restoration plans of South Holland and the association of local authorities RegioWater. The above extract from their planning map shows the remarkable density of ‘water routes’ which could potentially be opened up to navigation in boats of the appropriate dimensions. The green lines are all routes not normally available to recreational boats, while the crosses mark specific obstacles to be lifted, usually very low fixed bridges. The one furthest to the west, the Moerbrug, is said to be too low even for swans to pass under!

Ooievaart boat trip in The Hague

The Ooievaart boat trip starts from the Hooikade

A vivid demonstration of the issues – and the potential – was provided in the afternoon, as the 25-strong delegation (with members from the UK, Ireland, France, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Latvia, Norway and Serbia, as well as the host country) embarked on two open trip-boats run by the association Ooievaart, to discover the ring of canals (green on the map, beside the name Den Haag).

Despite rain of similar intensity to that experienced by the million visitors at the Thames Pageant for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee three days later, the 90-minute trip was both entertaining and instructive, as the history of the capital was explained street by street, bridge after bridge. Entertainment came from the numerous covered sections of the canals, where we all had to bend over completely to squeeze under beams, pipes and other protruding parts. It was like being in a surgeon’s probe, exploring the entrails of The Hague.

The Hague canal tunnel

Atmosphere in one of the tunnelled sections of the canal ring

And lo and behold! Structures were already in place to start implementing the RegioWater plan by removing the canal’s cover, to expose it and restore it to its rightful place in the urban environment. As in Lille and in Leipzig, the argument for covering the canals (or infilling them completely) was salubrity, in the absence of proper sewerage systems. With proper sewerage, water quality is now very good.

Covered section in the new centre of The Hague

Entering the covered section in the new centre of The Hague

The idea, as the IWI tour discovered in Leipzig in April 2011, is to use the opportunity of maintenance or replacement works to raise the bridges and increase the available headroom.

This means that navigability in larger craft can only be a long-term objective, but the process is to be hailed, as well as the opportunities for exploring such canals in small craft.

Forty years after I was blocked in a hireboat on the canal route south from Groningen to Coevorden, which had just been closed, the phase of economic development which led to the abandonment of so many small canals has clearly come to an end. ‘Small canals’ are now being revived on a significant scale, in both town and country.

Classifying recreational waterways by navigable draught

There is much concern in many parts of Europe, and especially on the secondary waterways in France, about maintenance of canal banks and the related issue of dredging. As author of the European Waterways Map & Directory, I adopted for that overview map the classification proposed by PIANC in 1999. This was later endorsed as UNECE Resolution No. 52, at the initiative of several organisations, including the European Boating Association. This classification focuses on boat size overall, i.e.
RC – motor yachts 15m long, 4m beam, 3.75m air draught and 1.50 m draught
RB – cabin cruisers and small yachts  9.50m long, 3m beam, 2.50m air draught and 1m draught
(RD is for standing mast routes, while RA is for light craft such as rafts and inflatables.)

Because of the sensitivity of dredging, I have adopted a different approach to categorising waterways in the new Imray map we have just completed. I know Inland Waterways of France is misleading by giving the ‘official’ draught, and one member of sister organisation DBA The Barge Association wrote to me about cruising on the Canal de la Robine as being closer to agriculture than navigation!

We are now proposing the following legend for this new French map.

So the thickest line corresponds to high-capacity waterways, generally offering a draught of at least 2 m. Then comes the commercial Class I or ‘Freycinet’ waterways, offering 1.80m in principle. The third category is recreational waterways offering a draught in the range of 1.40-1.60m, while a thin line without dark edges corresponds to waterways where the design draught is 1.00-1.30m.
And we place the clear caveat: Caution: these dimensions (headroom and draught) may not always be available. I believe we cannot be too literal in plotting all the anomalies throughout the network, that’s not the job of a simple overview planning map.